A shakedown or a welcome initiative to attract visitors?
Analysis:If you tried to second-guess things about Ireland that actor Gabriel Byrne was mad as hell about, the list might include the Government’s plans to skewer its cultural institutions, the increasing materialism of Irish society, as well as the venality of its politics.
The Gathering is just about the most inoffensive policy the Coalition has dreamed up. The ferocity of Byrne’s attack on the project took people by surprise, but so too did the fact that he chose to attack something which had been wholly uncontroversial until now.
Byrne was interviewed by Matt Cooper on Today FM on Monday evening in New York. The irony was that the Last Word’s trip to the US was co-funded by The Gathering and is presumably why Cooper asked for Byrne’s opinion of the idea. When Byrne let fly, Cooper’s journalistic instincts kicked in and he went with the piece, co-funding or not.
Byrne’s criticism was split into two strands. The first was the paradox of a Government trying to get emigrants back to visit when its “incompetence and gangsterism” had driven them out. His second was on the “selling a pig in a poke” theme. He portrayed The Gathering as an artifice and as a “scam”, an exercise in shaking Burberrys (rich exiles wearing designer macs) for a few quid, to return to Ireland to take part in “egg-and-spoon races”.
Tapping into the diaspora – including those whose connection to Ireland is tenuous – is not a new phenomenon and has been the obvious and overriding strategy in most markets, especially North America, for over half a century. Tourism is a vital sector in the Irish economy and an industry that is capable of growing, even in the midst of a prolonged recession.
The Gathering is a new iteration of that strategy. It emerged from the first Farmleigh think-in, inspired by Scotland which had huge success when it organised clan gatherings.
There would have been sharp criticism had there not been such an initiative. Jim Miley, its project director, pointed out yesterday that its reach was wider than first generation exiles, including those who may have an affection for Ireland, but not necessarily an ancestral connection. Second, it has developed into something wider than a Tourism Ireland initiative. Irish families, communities, cultural organisations, sporting organisations and festivals have all become involved of their own volition. For example, the Galway Arts Festival in 2013 will include a conference on cultural policy and thinking that has been billed as a “Davos” for the arts.
The budget has been modest – no more than €12 million – but the metrics and actions so far have been impressive. There are over 1,150 events pencilled in, from tiny (though not as small as an egg-and-spoon race) to ambitious in scale. There has been some smart marketing, including a big promo in Croke Park on All-Ireland hurling day and six TV programmes featuring high-profile exiles coming home, including actress Fionnuala O’Flanagan and Aussie Rules star Tadhg Kenneally.
An artifice, sure. But not too many have agreed with Byrne’s view that it is a “scam”.